What is a VPN? How it works and common uses

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What is a VPN and how does it work? How do you know if you should use one and it’s worth paying to protect your privacy, or if you should use a free one? In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know before you start using a VPN.

What is a VPN?  How it works and common uses

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have a shady reputation due to their potential and history of covert use. However, VPNs can be used for a wide variety of applications, most of which are legal and useful for your average internet geek. The best VPNs are incredibly secure and standard tools to help you get the most out of the web without doing anything illegal. Installing a VPN is not difficult at all and most of the time it works right out of the box.

Many people wouldn’t dream of using the internet without disguising what they’re up to, especially with today’s data collection, marketing techniques and selling of personal information. They are becoming increasingly popular even among casual Internet users.

What is a VPN?

A VPN (virtual private network) is an easy and effective way to protect your internet traffic and keep your identity private. When you connect to a VPN server, your internet traffic passes through an encrypted tunnel that protects it from hackers, governments and third-party snoops.

In their simplest operation, VPNs allow you to hide your IP address (a code that uniquely identifies your web connection). A VPN protects your privacy, identity, and location by transmitting your IP to a private network that connects to the Internet through an encrypted tunnel. These connections are commonly used for public Internet access, such as Wi-Fi hotspots or even a router at a local restaurant.

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Additionally, VPNs are useful for bypassing region-locked content, such as watching the Netflix you’re used to when traveling in the UK or watching BBC iPlayer in the US.

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How does a VPN work?

A VPN works by encrypting the communication on the device you are using, be it a smartphone, laptop or tablet. It sends data through a secure tunnel to the VPN provider’s servers. The data is encrypted and redirected to whatever page you are trying to access. Paid VPN services like ExpressVPN can mask your IP address so you can browse online safely.

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What is a proxy?

VPNs are often discussed alongside proxies and have similar uses. While a VPN is typically used to protect data in a secure “tunnel,” a proxy routes data through another network device, such as a remote server. This connection makes it look like the traffic is coming from the server rather than the individual, giving them another layer of anonymity. However, while VPNs hide who you are, where you are, and what websites you’ve visited, proxies only handle the first two.

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In simpler terms, a VPN protects data and a proxy protects users.

Using a VPN

1. Public Wi-Fi: If you use a VPN on an unprotected Wi-Fi connection (restaurants, airports, hotels, doctor’s offices, etc.), your data is automatically encrypted. Logging into banking apps and medical websites, as well as shopping online, is reasonably secure.

2. Online shopping: Stores that encrypt and protect your information are usually marked with “https” in the address bar and have a lock symbol. However, some online stores will leave you exposed, while other sites, such as those created by hackers, may look legitimate even though they are not. Browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox convert insecure websites to secure whenever possible. There are also third-party applications such as HTTPS Everywhere that keep insecure sites secure. Regardless, using a VPN will ensure that your data is safe if you happen to visit a risky website.

3. Protection against snooping: Using a VPN can protect you from hackers and tracking service providers. If you visit a torrent site or download movies from a website, you bet your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is tracking you and you may receive a letter as a warning. You may also encounter sites designed to track your browsing activity and steal your personal information to sell on the black market.

4. Net Neutrality: Regardless of what current federal net neutrality laws are in effect, if any, ISPs may be able to throttle web speeds and restrict streaming services, which is currently possible. Unfortunately, they may also receive lump sums from certain third parties or web providers (such as Facebook and not Twitter) to favor the paying company’s sites and services over competitors. Still, most ISPs are holding back due to ever-changing and controversial legislation and state court lawsuits. All scenarios can be circumvented by using a VPN (if unblocked) that reports your location elsewhere.

5. Removing geoblocks: A VPN can bypass local restrictions by hiding the user’s real IP address and replacing it with a “local” address. This can be useful for all types of media content and also for playing video games in a region other than yours.

When should I use a VPN?

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Home users who feel the need to protect personal data while browsing the web from their smartphone or computer should use a VPN. Some routers allow you to set up a VPN right across your entire network, meaning all devices are secured, saving you from having to run a VPN on every phone, tablet or PC.

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Some individuals use VPN because they do not want their online activities to be tracked, but they do it for illegal purposes. VPNs allow users to perform nefarious online activities without being tracked. People mostly use it legally to protect their identity and watch region-restricted content.

Types of VPNs

Remote Access: As the name suggests, remote access VPNs allow individual users to establish secure connections on a remote computer network. Users do not need to connect to specific network servers. Companies with remote workers or people who travel a lot often use remote access VPNs.

Web-to-site: In contrast, a site-to-site VPN allows offices in different locations to establish a secure connection to each other over a public network. Intranet sites (correctly spelled) that are accessible from outside the office are one example of using a site-to-site VPN. Alternatively, if a company has connections with external businesses such as suppliers, an extranet VPN connection will allow them to work together on a secure shared network while preventing access to their separate intranets.

Free VPN vs Paid VPN

VPNs come in two varieties: paid and free. Free VPNs may sound ideal for one-time use to view inaccessible content, but paid VPN services certainly outweigh free VPN clients.

VPNs cost money to operate, so when you see a VPN offering a free service, alarm bells should be ringing if they don’t have enough ad revenue. Free services are not only inherently slower, less secure, and usually fail to mask your IP address, but they also carry serious dangers, such as getting your information or hijacking your Internet bandwidth and IP address. By using your own computer’s address, these free VPNs can allow other users to do illegal activities using your location. However, some free VPNs are legitimate.

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However, a paid VPN offers more security along with a promise not to sell your information or use your bandwidth for others. The third party instead uses your subscription to pay for its services. You will also find that your connection runs faster, doesn’t drop out as often and your IP address is masked. Paid services don’t cost that much either, starting as low as $2 a month during a promotion. Pricing regularly starts at around $4-6 per month (or paid annually or as a package for 2-5 years).

Benefits of using a VPN

It will change your location

Your IP address, which is a special number that identifies your device and location, changes when you use a VPN. With a new IP address, users can browse the internet as if they were in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Japan, or any other country (provided the VPN service has servers there).

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Protects your privacy

Changing your IP address with a VPN can help protect your identity from websites, apps, and services that want to track you. A good VPN also prevents ISPs, mobile operators and snoopers from seeing your online activity thanks to strong encryption.

Increases security

Using a VPN protects users from security breaches such as packet sniffing, man-in-the-middle attacks, and rogue Wi-Fi networks. For example, remote workers and travelers can benefit from the increased security offered by a VPN when using public Wi-Fi.

Unblocks websites

If you’re in a part of the world that restricts access to Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon, Hulu, Disney Plus, or other sites, using a VPN will allow you to unblock those geo-restricted sites. You can also use a VPN to bypass firewalls on school or office networks.

Where can I get a VPN?

iOS App Store
ExpressVPN iOS Store

Searching for “best VPN” or “VPN download” or any search containing “VPN” always brings up a lot of ad-supported VPN download links. You shouldn’t click on them when looking for a VPN download. Your best bet is to go directly to a trusted client or download source. Google Play and the iOS App Store offer a wide selection of free and paid VPN clients for mobile devices. A good paid option for beginners is ExpressVPN. We’ve also compiled a list of the best VPNs to help you out.

Why Controversy?

If you use the word VPN or proxy around certain people, they may have an immediate negative reaction. This is because the added layer of privacy that a VPN provides can sometimes be used for nefarious purposes. The worst of these purposes is illegal activity.

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A lighter side of VPN negatives can be seen in the world of competitive online video games. As online gaming grows in popularity, so does cheating in these games. The developers try to limit this by handing out IP bans, ensuring that cheaters will no longer be able to play the game even with a new account. Enter VPN; unfortunately, the ability to change the IP address from which you connect to the Internet allows cheaters to bypass these IP bans in many games.

Conclusion

A VPN like ExpressVPN can make your online experience safer and more secure. Protects your personal information and increases privacy online. While they may have a less-than-stellar reputation from their popular use in the past, VPNs are incredibly useful and becoming more necessary in today’s disruptive internet environment. Now that you know what a VPN is, do you have any questions or concerns? Do you have any suggestions for your favorite VPN services? Let us know in the comments below!

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